UI sees less racial tension, 40 years after Project 500

By Paolo Cisneros

Forty years after the University implemented its first major affirmative action initiative, the minority population on campus continues to grow.

Isolated incidents during the course of the past few years have ignited tensions from time to time, but most students and University officials said the racial atmosphere on campus is one marked by large degrees of respect and understanding.

That was not the case in 1968 when an initiative that came to be known as Project 500 brought more than 500 black students to a University campus that, until then, had seen no more than a handful of minority students at any given time. The University celebrated the program’s 40th anniversary in early November.

“It helped spearhead a consistent enrollment of black students on this campus,” said Nameka Bates, director of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American cultural center. “It’s given our current students a legacy to build upon.”

While the University did not track racial data in 1968, current records show a trend of increased enrollment among minority students. Caucasians still outnumber any other racial group, but many students – no matter their race – say they feel welcome in Champaign-Urbana.

“If there is racism, I don’t see it,” said Andy Logemann, sophomore in LAS. “I don’t notice it at all.”

Those who do notice racial problems offered ideas as to why it exists. Some blamed the Greek system, and others said such problems were inherent of such a large university. But most agreed that, despite the tensions that exist, racism on campus isn’t as big of an issue as they heard it had been in the past.

Even so, some students noted that groups on campus tend to separate themselves by race.

“When I walk around, I see a lot of people walking with people of the same race,” said Andrew Sell, sophomore in FAA.

Ian Sassano, sophomore in Business, said that while self-segregation on campus is certainly a reality, it is probably unrelated to any racial tension.

“It’s probably unsettling to be in a new place, and it’s probably easier to fit in with someone who looks like you,” he said.

On her part, Bates said many of the cultural resources that exist on campus are due, in large part, to the students and administrators who saw Project 500 through and made certain that the Civil Rights Movement made a stop in Champaign-Urbana.

She said the racial environment on campus is not perfect, but thanks to the work of civil rights leaders in 1968, the situation continues to improve.

“(Project 500) gave the students the confidence to realize that their voice can have a significant impact on change at this institution,” she said.